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With Maxwell’s about to close, Richard Barone reflects

Richard Barone.jpg
In front of the empty lot at 415 Monroe St. in Hoboken, N.J., there’s a gold star in the sidewalk acknowledging the site as the birthplace of Frank Sinatra.

No matter what becomes of the building across town at 1039 Washington St., a similar marker is in order to commemorate that location as the longtime home of Maxwell’s.

The iconic club/restaurant was definitely not the type of place you’d ever find Ol’ Blue Eyes or his fellow Rat Packers. Since 1978, Maxwell’s has catered to a diversified rock ’n’ roll crowd, primarily presenting shows by acts that fell under the radar and/or were on the rise, such as R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Husker Du, Soundgarden and Nirvana. Established stars occasionally appeared at Maxwell’s, too: It’s where Bruce Springsteen filmed portions of his video for “Glory Days” in 1985 and where My Chemical Romance recorded part of its The Black Parade Is Dead! collection in 2007.

Todd Abramson, the club’s booker and one of its owners, announced in early June that Maxwell’s would be closing the following month, citing “the changing nature of Hoboken” (where street parking is just as challenging as it is in Manhattan) in a story published on The Star-Ledger’s Web site. Appropriately enough, the lineup for the grand finale, which is scheduled for July 31, includes a — the first band to ever play at Maxwell’s — as well as The Bongos.

Singer/songwriter Richard Barone, a member of both bands, spoke about the early days at Maxwell’s and what he’d like to see happen there on July 31. What stands out in your mind about your band a playing the very first show at Maxwell’s?
Richard Barone: “There’s a lot that stands out for me about that first show at Maxwell’s — in particular, there was a ‘newness’ to everything about it for me personally. I hadn’t performed very much in public before, it was a new town for me, and even the venue itself was new. [Founding co-owner] Steve Fallon was so cool, and in my heart I felt like our playing there was going to be something we could ‘build’ on.

“From the first notes we played, the situation felt very comfortable and correct. Even though there was no stage, and we were basically playing to a seated dinner crowd — in the front room — with a gaggle of on-lookers from the street peering into the plate-glass windows behind us, we felt a particular sense of support and community. We had been working on what I felt were some really interesting songs, including some — especially Glenn [Morrow’s] — that were very Hoboken-specific, so we were anxious to play them to a Hoboken crowd. They seemed to really like us, and we rocked hard enough to rattle and break the wine glasses and beer mugs at the bar. Without a doubt, that first night felt like the beginning of something.”

And how about the first time The Bongos played there?
Barone: “We were so engaged with Maxwell’s at that point: Drummer Frank Giannini was also the cook who developed their awesome first menu, bassist Rob Norris and I were making fliers for shows and we only lived half a block away, so we even had dinner there every night.
The Bongos.jpg
Richard Barone (right) and his fellow Bongos in the band’s early days.

“That first Bongos show is kinda blurry. We were there all the time. We had been rehearsing in the back room, coming up with our sound for the past few months, so when we played our first official show there, it was just kind of moving from the back room to the front room to perform — with The Fleshtones, I think. I remember some funny stage moves with their frontman Peter Zaremba, singing Eddie Cochran’s ‘Nervous Breakdown’ together, and exchanging a hat back and forth between us as we sang the verses.

“The Bongos really rocked! It was a power-pop power trio to the max, with Frank pounding the tom-toms in the most tribal way, and Rob’s fat, anchoring bass opening it up for some guitar blasts when I stepped on my stomp box. I know we gave The Fleshtones a run for their money. One of the most important things about the Maxwell’s/Hoboken scene was an amazing, unusual camaraderie between bands and musicians. You could feel it even in the earliest days. As time went on and more bands became part of the scene, a big part of the audience was made up of fellow musicians. It was all about the community. That was cool, and was further proof to me that it was ‘for real.’”

Was there a moment or a specific show — either one you played or saw as a fan — that made you realize Maxwell’s had become a bona fide rock club?
Barone: “Well, I always thought of Maxwell’s as a unique type of venue, and I felt certain bands that came to play there, by the power of their own talent and distinctiveness, made it a bona fide concert venue. Early on, The Feelies did this. A group called Young Marble Giants did this. New Order and R.E.M. did this, and I like to think The Bongos did this. Not every band could transform the back room into a true concert experience.

“But the ones that did — wow. But in my mind, it became a bona fide rock club as soon as the back room was open for business and tickets were being sold. The Bongos would often hang out and/or play at Manhattan clubs like Max’s Kansas City, The Mudd Club or a place called Tier 3 in SoHo, and we felt that Maxwell’s was right up there with those venues right off the bat. It just happened to be ours, and by that I mean all of ours: the bands and patrons of Maxwell’s. At places like Max’s Kansas City or the Mudd Club, only the real insiders felt included. At Maxwell’s, I think everyone could feel at home. That was the big difference.”

In the Maxwell’s oral history put together by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, you admitted to hitting your head many times on the heater that’s above the stage. Did you ever go down for the count? And was any one hit worse than the others?
Barone: “(Laughs) Yeah, I hit my head on that heater all the time. Eventually, somebody cushioned the most dangerous corner with foam rubber and duct tape. I got slammed a lot, but I was never actually knocked out somehow.

“The thing was, because the stage was small, movement up there had to be more or less vertical — a lot of jumping up and down. … The only other place to move to on that stage was into the audience itself, which I did many times. But at first, for me anyway, it was a kind of pogo-ing on the stage, with all its hazards. Especially at Maxwell’s, I would go into what I call a performance trance and would really become unaware of the physical surroundings and stage fixtures. I was aware only of the audience and wanted to feel what they wanted, what they reacted to, very much like lovemaking. I know that’s a cliché, but Maxwell’s was a very intimate club, and the audience was as much a part of the action as the bands. So yes, my head took the blows, but it was worth it for the ecstasy — not the drug, by the way. That’s a different story!”

With Maxwell’s closing, is there any hope left for Hoboken as a destination to see live original bands?
Barone: “I guess for that we’ll have to wait and see. Maxwell’s came about and succeeded because certain specific factors were in place: the makings of a perfect storm. For one thing, there was a need for a new music venue at the very beginning of what was going to be the indie-rock, alternative scene. People wanted a new type of venue for a new type of music.

“Secondly, the Fallon family had just purchased the existing venue, and Steve Fallon was a guy with excellent musical knowledge and taste — and a vision for what the club could be. Third, Glenn Morrow and I and my fellow future Bongos were new in town, had started a band, were interested in the same new music that Fallon was. We were the perfect first band to play there and help grow the scene because we were all interested in making something happen.

“And, lastly, the town of Hoboken was different then — more innocent, quieter, less crowded, and, frankly, more ‘special.’ That was the x-factor: Maxwell’s was situated in the unexpected little sleepy town that time forgot. All of those factors and others combined to make Maxwell’s.

“Now, Hoboken is a rowdy, weekend drinking destination big time, with very little emphasis — other than at Maxwell’s — on live, original indie music. As you know, the town is heavy on sports bars and the like. [That’s] totally fine, of course, but when Maxwell’s started, that was not the vibe on Washington Street. For the magic to happen again in quite the same way is unlikely. But to preserve the history and legacy of what we started in some way in a new ‘Maxwell’s’ in Hoboken, a new club that can try to carry on the tradition of openness and inclusiveness — combined with an excellent, curated booking policy the way Steve Fallon approached it — is something that might be worth investing in. Hoboken is still a great little town with the center of the universe right across the river — and must never be underestimated.”

What can fans expect July 31 when a and The Bongos play as part of the final show at Maxwell’s?
Barone: “I don’t think any of us know what to expect on that last night. We’re going to try to go in there with the same kind of spirit and attitude that got the whole thing started in the first place, all those years ago. It’s a spirit of ‘anything goes,’ of ‘be yourself,’ of ‘do what you feel’ and ‘sing and make the noise you want.’ It was a spirit of, ‘This is ours, this is for us — you and us.’ It’s a spirit of not trying to imitate other bands, but about doing something new.

“In fact, one of the great things about those first days of Maxwell’s was exactly that: No one knew what to expect. These days, everything from politics to entertainment and everything in between, is viewed through a filter of expectation. Everything is scripted out. So maybe, for one night, let’s all just not know what to expect, and let some magic happen at Maxwell’s — one last time.”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior